SAN FRANCISCO — The Golden State Warriors have been coy about how much they’ve been watching the Western Conference standings. Some have admitted to monitoring them. Others have said they’re an afterthought.
But, heading into Saturday’s game against the Utah Jazz, there was not one person in Golden State’s locker room who wasn’t aware of the game’s implications.
A win would allow the Warriors to sit in third place with a one-game advantage over the Dallas Mavericks. It would also give them the tiebreaker against the Jazz, ensuring they’d have a top-five spot in the West if the two had the same record at the end of the regular season.
“Oh yeah, [we were] well aware,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “We didn’t talk about it a whole lot as a team, but the guys know. …I told it to the coaching staff, and Steph [Curry] said it to a couple of the guys.”
The Warriors beat the Jazz 111-107, clinching a spot in the playoffs and setting themselves up nicely to potentially earn home-court advantage in the first round of the postseason. It was just their second win in the past nine games.
Coming off their loss to the Phoenix Suns two nights before, the Warriors felt they finally had something positive to build on. Against the Suns, their defense — which was once ranked No. 1 in the league — re-emerged, and on offense, they looked connected and coherent. The issue was that they couldn’t close.
Against the Jazz, it was all about how they closed.
After the Warriors trimmed the Jazz’s lead to single digits in the final minutes of the third quarter, Utah made a quick surge at the start of the fourth to go up 16. With 6:58 left, Klay Thompson hit a 3-pointer, and the Jazz called timeout.
That was when the game changed, sparked by a Draymond Green pep talk.
“He just brought a lot of energy. Giving guys motivation and picking us up, especially in a pressure moment like that,” Jordan Poole said. “What he says projects to the entire team. We were able to just ride that momentum.”
Coming out of the timeout, Andrew Wiggins made a 28-foot pull-up jumper. Thirty seconds later, Thompson hits a 3. The next possession, he hits another. The Warriors went from down 16 to down just four in 80 seconds and went on an 18-0 run to take their first lead of the game.
“What a performance,” Kerr said. “I was amazed by the skill of Klay and Jordan. The emotion and passion from Draymond, and the methodical defense and energy from Andrew and Otto [Porter Jr.] An incredible performance down the stretch by our guys.”
Poole finished with 31 points, his 16th consecutive game with at least 20 points, while Thompson led the Warriors with 36.
In Thompson’s case, it was a breakthrough night after he struggled for the past several games. The Warriors chalk up his recent woes to him forcing his shot, trying too hard to find a rhythm.
“We’ve seen it a million times: If Klay just sees the ball go through the hoop a couple of times, he can make the bad ones too,” Kerr said. “I didn’t think this was a dramatic improvement in terms of shot selection, but I think the fact that that midrange shot was there … that allowed him to get into a rhythm and then he started making the impossible ones.”
Added Thompson: “I know I can flip a switch just like that. I knew this year would have its ups and downs, and I just told myself yesterday that it’s one game and I will move on. I told Kenny Atkinson that I felt like I was going to have a big night tonight, and it came to fruition. I’m happy it did.”
The Warriors’ offensive show in the fourth quarter was only aided by the fact that Utah continued to defend in a drop coverage, having Rudy Gobert stay in the paint no matter what, giving the Warriors wide-open looks.
But unlike in other games, in which the Warriors missed those open shots, this time they hit them. Instead of being lackadaisical, they executed.
Poole said that at this point of the season, every game is important. But there was no denying that everyone in the Warriors’ locker room knew this one had an extra edge to it, and they weren’t going to let it slip away.
That’s what Green told the team during the timeout midway through the fourth, and what led the Warriors on their late-game surge.
“It was a crucial part of the game,” Poole said. “This was the moment when we needed to win the game.”